Much of what Prof. Roger Boshier sees being passed off as on-line education on the World Wide Web is enough to make him throw up his hands in despair.
With its vast amounts of information and capacity for interaction, the Web has enormous potential for education. But most of what is now available is, in Boshier's opinion, little short of a travesty.
"Some Web courses are an unmitigated bore and represent little more than lecture notes posted on the Web," he says in a recent journal article. "At the other extreme are those laced with links, animation and more than enough glitter and glam to make Liberace wince."
Boshier, of the Dept. of Educational Studies, and graduate students in the Adult Education Research Centre surveyed 127 Web courses to see how they measured up.
Their study resulted in an academic paper, but also tongue-in-cheek presentations of a Madonna Award for the best dressed site and a Drab and Nameless Award for the worst dressed.
Ideally, Boshier says, "The Web can function less like a traditional classroom and more like a library where a person can browse, talk with people involved with the program and others not in the course but with similar interests."
Boshier and his colleagues took the position of customers, looking for stand-alone Web courses that could be completed entirely without face-to-face interaction with an instructor.
Most of the courses were based at universities and colleges, mainly in the United States, but also in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Topics ran the gamut of science, business, computers, social sciences and education.
The researchers found that disappointingly few courses used much of the Web's interactive capability, Boshier said.
Many merely try to replicate face-to-face courses, filling their Web site with lecture notes and other text. Some were difficult to navigate or even read. Others had muddled concepts and lacked links to other sites or potential for students to provide feedback.
These are not technological problems, Boshier pointed out. Instead, too many course designers view students as passive recipients of information and not partners in collaborative learning, he said.
The best courses, on the other hand, were easy to navigate, involved high levels of interaction, rewarded creativity and made use of the enormous resources of the Web.
Some of their features included graphics, animation, video, audio, threaded discussions, student chat rooms, e-mail, space to post student work and links to other relevant sites.
"More creative courses had learners leave the home site to do research on relevant sites, then post their findings for all learners to use," Boshier said.
For example, a University of Texas geology course has students use the Web to locate an earthquake that has occurred in the previous 24 hours. Working in groups, they answer a series of questions about it and then post the results for all to see.
Boshier and his colleagues gave the Madonna Award to a history course at the University of Wisconsin. The worst site was judged to be an Illinois State University education course.
Boshier and his colleagues have now turned their attention to other issues involving education on the Web, including American dominance of the medium.
"There is a sense that America is the centre, and the rest of the world the periphery," Boshier said. "The reality of people from smaller nations, indigenous people and non-English-speaking people is not reflected on the Web."